Print edition : May 12, 2017

A. Ashok, Dalit activist and trustee of the J.H.A. Tremenheere Foundation, at the memorial for John Thomas and Ezhumalai in Chengleput. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Though it ended in tragedy, the Karanai agitation of 1994 brought Dalits together under a common cause.

IN the mid 1990s, the people of Karanai, a fertile hamlet near Mamallapuram in Kancheepuram district, waged a valiant struggle that caught the attention of the country. Though the struggle for panchami land, described as a significant moment for Dalit empowerment in Tamil Nadu, ended in tragedy, it energised the Dalits to come under a common banner for the retrieval of land occupied by non-Dalits in the State.

More than two decades later, what stands as the only testimony to the struggle is an innocuous memorial for John Thomas of Pappanallur village and Ezhumalai of Kulipanthandalam, the two youths who laid down their lives in the agitation. The movement has lost steam in recent years though pockets of resistance remain and isolated protests are reported from various places. “There is no unity among the groups to take the agitation to the next level. Dalit leaders come once in a year to observe the anniversary of the Karanai struggle and garland the memorial. Since the memorial does not have portraits of the two martyred youths, people bring the youths’ photos and leave them at the memorial after paying their respects,” said Selvarani (35), a shepherdess. When this correspondent visited the memorial, he found photos of the two youths strewn on the ground.

Problems began to crop up in 1994 when the Social Action Movement (SAM), an NGO in Mamandur near Chengleput, decided to restore 633 acres of panchami (Depressed Class) land to 300 Dalit families in Karanai village, which the British had allotted to them in 1933. Over a period of time, these had fallen into the hands of non-Dalits, a majority of them caste Hindus. SAM, as a symbolic start to its “Panchami Land Restoration Movement”, mobilised hundreds of Dalits, including women and children, from Chengleput, Kancheepuram, Maduranthagam and Uthiramerur blocks in Kancheepuram district, in Karanai village on October 4, 1994. The people gathered at the village and installed the statue of Ambedkar on a piece of 4.5 acres of panchami land allegedly possessed by a non-Dalit in the village. They also ploughed the land to emphasise their right over these lands.

“Pasarai” A. Selvaraj, a Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) functionary from Kancheepuram, participated in the agitation. Talking to Frontline, the 57-year-old Dalit activist said that the organisation he had founded, the Ambedkar Pasarai (Ambedkar Forum), and SAM took up the Karanai agitation when one of the panchami beneficiaries in the village, Deepan Chakravarthy, approached them saying that his ancestor’s land was being occupied by a non-Dalit and that it should be retrieved. “We organised an agitation in Karanai on October 4, 1994. A Dalit activist, M. K. Mayan of Perumbakkam, ploughed the panchami land. I unveiled the Ambedkar statue that had been installed on the land by SAM,” he said.

The next day, a strong force of police and revenue officials, acting under pressure from caste Hindus, descended on the site and, after chasing out the Dalits, removed the Ambedkar statue using an earthmover, damaging it in the process. The incidents took the State by storm. Agitations and protests were organised all over Tamil Nadu. Those who organised the agitation in Karanai were arrested. As a mark of protest against the police crackdown and the removal of the Ambedkar statue, the organisers decided to hold a dharna in front of the Sub Collector’s office in Chengleput on October 10, 1994. Nearly 10,000 people from the surrounding villages gathered there on that fateful day.

The protesters organised a road blockade. A five-member committee led by Selvaraj held talks with the district officials and requested them to reinstall the statue. “But we were ill-treated during the talks. Hence, we resorted to an agitation,” he said. Selvaraj claims that the agitation was peaceful until a Salem-bound State Transport Corporation bus was set on fire by some miscreants. “The police opened fire and the two youths, John Thomas and Ezhumalai, were killed. Later, social and Dalit activists, including T.S.S. Mani, rushed to Chengleput from Chennai to extend their support. By then 26 women and 124 men had been arrested and scores injured,” he said.

Many of the protesters, including women and children, sustained injuries. The then AIADMK-led State government instituted a single-member Inquiry Commission, led by Justice E.J. Bellie, a retired Madras High Court judge, under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. The Gazetted Order of the Tamil Nadu government confined the Commission’s ambit of inquiry to the “incident of police firing on 10th October, 1994, on the Dalit people assembled in front of the Sub Collector’s office, Chengalpattu, Chengalpattu MGR District”. It conspicuously remained silent on the fact that the struggle was for retrieval of panchami land in Karanai.

The Commission concluded that the agitation was “extremely violent” and justified the police firing by saying that it “was entirely warranted and just”. It awarded a mere Rs.50,000 each to the kin of the dead. It exonerated the police. But a sustained agitation by activists led to the reinstallation of the Ambedkar statue at the same site on June 7, 1995, with Ram Vilas Paswan, president of the Lok Janshakti Party, presiding over the ceremony. Karanai is now synonymous with the panchami land struggle in Tamil Nadu.

The Karanai agitation inspired many movements to repossess land that had been allotted to Dalits. But the families of the two youths who lost their lives in the agitation were left to fend for themselves. Frontline traced the wife and daughter of John Thomas, Margret and Usha Rani, to a slum in Chennai. The family of Ezhumalai, who was not married at the time of the agitation, had stayed back in their village Kulipanthandalam.

Today, Margret and Usha Rani are living in a one-room tiled house measuring 10x10 ft.

“I was just 25 and Usha was nine years old when my husband died in the police firing,” Margret told Frontline. Usha has completed a BSc nursing course and is now working at a private hospital in Kodambakkam, Chennai. The State government gave Rs.50,000 as compensation after Thomas’ death and appointed Margret as an “aayah” in a palvadi (children’s centre) in Acharapakkam in Kancheepuram district. She quit the job since she found it difficult to commute every day from her village Pappanallur in Maduranthagam taluk to Acharapakkam.

Immediately after her husband’s death, Margret started living with her parents, who were farmworkers. They subsisted mainly on MGNREGA wages. Margret managed to educate Usha in spite of the adverse living conditions.

“His loss was a huge one. No one supported us. Those organisations that had cried foul over his death and the parties that had promised support deserted us. We struggled all alone with our meagre earnings. Usha completed her college education with an education loan. She is now repaying it from her meagre salary. Even two meals a day has become a rarity for us now. And our everyday life has become an ordeal,” she said.

It took nearly a month for this correspondent to trace them in Chennai. It took a lot of persuasion to get Margret talking because she and her family have been avoiding the public and media all these years. It was the Chengleput-based Dalit activist and lawyer Asokan who traced Margret’s mobile number and passed it on to Frontline. Initially, both mother and daughter were reluctant to talk, but relented later. “We have had enough bitter experiences in our life. We wish to live in peaceful anonymity. This is the first interview I am giving after his death,” she said.

John Thomas, Margret said, always thought of the marginalised and never hesitated to take up issues that empowered them. He was working with SAM as a field activist when the tragedy struck. “He was never at home even during nights. Someone would always knock on our doors even at odd hours seeking assistance. I had never seen him sulking. His objective was to empower Dalits,” she recollected fondly about her husband.

“We are destroyed today. My husband used to tell me not to worry and that in case of his death people would come to support me and our daughter. But no one came forward to help us. The society for which he sacrificed his life turned its back on us. We suffered silently and all alone. It is a loss that could never be compensated,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. The family has no photographs of Thomas barring one blurred reproduction of an old black-and-white passport-size photograph, which Usha keeps as a screen saver on her mobile.

The State, she said, should help them at least now. “It was a gross miscarriage of justice when they gave us a measly sum of Rs.50,000 as compensation. It was not enough even to meet the expenses for his last rites. Barring a few who gave us some money at the time of his death, no one has offered us any help so far. I need money to get my daughter married. If the Tamil Nadu government provides her a job in one of its hospitals, we will be grateful,” Margret said.

The family of John Thomas who was martyred for the panchami land retrieval movement today stands all alone.

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